Self-fulfilling prophecies are often crucial to the birth of a people. When Jews bless their sons on Friday night, they say, “May you be like Ephraim and like Menashe”. Why not “like Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yakov”? After all, we bless our daughters that they be like the four matriarch’s: Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, so why not bless our sons that they be like the patriarchs? Why Ephraim and Menashe?
While the Torah explicitly cautions against putting the younger before the elder in terms of inheritance, time and time again, the narrative portions of the Torah provide a lesson to the contrary: Yitzhak before Yishmael, Yaakov before Esau, Rahel before Leah, Yoseph before all his elder brothers, and Ephraim before Menashe. What is the meaning of this odd discord between law and example? What is the Torah trying to tell us?
Most people know that the story of Noah contains the first reference to law: the Seven Noahide Commandments are seen as the minimal requirements for civilized human society. But what many don’t know is that there is a second set of “Noahide Commandments” derived from this week’s parasha. These laws are not about human society, but about the survival of all life on earth.
It’s been said that the first chapter of B’reishit (Genesis) contains polemics against just about every worldview common in the ancient world. One of those worldviews is the notion of destiny, that a person’s fate is written in the stars. B’reishit puts the emphasis from the very beginning on human free will.
The deception of his brother and his father must have weighed heavily on him. For nearly two decades he has lived away from home; ample time for the event to magnify itself in his mind and become a fixation. What else could I have done? He knows that he did wrong. He also knows that it was necessitated by the situation.
Parashat Chayei Sarah features the journey of Avraham’s servant back to Avraham’s home turn to seek a bride for Yitzhak. Eliezer asks for a sign—Let it be that the maiden who says, ‘drink, and I’ll water your camels too!’ be the one chosen for Yitzhak. The Talmud records an opinion of R’ Yonatan that Eliezer’s prayer to God to be given a sign was an “inappropriate” prayer. Rav Ish-Shalom has an interesting answer.
In Parashat Vayera we cease to deal with individuals and begin to deal with nations. God “muses aloud” about whether to confide in Avraham the upcoming destruction of the nearby metropolis of S’dom. It is no coincidence that the destruction of S’dom is foretold in the very passage in which God speaks of Avraham’s descendants’ doing what is just and right. But why does Avraham then try to oppose God’s justice?
When Avraham is told to leave his country, he’s being told to leave behind more than a mere place. The midrash sees God’s command to Avraham as a lesson in self-transformation. Avram and Sarai cannot give birth to children; Avraham and Sarah will give birth to a nation!
A secret is concealed in the juxtaposition of Parashat Ki Tavo and Nitzavim. We are told how to relate to our history, and that we will not face it alone. “When all this has come upon you…” The procedure for bringing the first fruits contains a holographic image of all of our history. It is the model for the period in which we now find ourselves, now that all of this has come upon us.
The Egyptian experience, not as a historical fact, but as a deeply-felt cultural motif, penetrates and pervades all subsequent Jewish law. The commandment to “love the stranger” appears no fewer than 36 times in the Biblical text, and serves as the basis of derivation of countless later customs and laws. The relevance of the Exodus story goes beyond mere factual truth; its true significance lies in what we’ve built on it and how it has molded us as a people who, in every generation, have made it our own.